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Tue April 15, 2014
Shots - Health News

Voodoo Dolls Prove It: Hunger Makes Couples Turn On Each Other

Originally published on Tue April 15, 2014 5:03 pm

A lot of us know what can happen when we get hungry. We get grumpy, irritable and sometimes nasty.

There's even a name for this phenomenon: "Hangry, which is a combination of the words hungry and angry," says psychologist Brad Bushman from Ohio State University.

Many studies have suggested that low blood sugar may be the underlying cause of hunger-induced crankiness. But most of those studies were performed with strangers in the laboratory. Bushman wondered: What about people who get along well, or who even love each other? Does low blood sugar turn even spouses into frenemies?

To figure that out, Bushman recruited 107 couples for a study. He assessed the quality of their relationships and taught them how to measure their blood sugar. Then he sent each volunteer home with something unusual: a voodoo doll and 51 pins.

"We told the participants this doll represented their spouse," Bushman says. "and that every night before they went to bed they should stab the doll with pins depending on how angry they were with their spouse. So the more pins they put in the doll, the angrier they were with their spouse."

After three weeks, Bushman and his team assessed the damage done to each doll. Volunteers who had low levels of blood glucose stuck more pins in the voodoo dolls than those who had high levels of blood glucose, Bushman and his team reported Monday in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In fact, people with the lowest blood sugar levels stuck more than twice as many pins in the voodoo dolls, compared with people with the highest levels, the researchers found.

The team also wanted to know whether those angry feelings translated into nastier behavior. So they had the couples play a computer game in which the winner got to blast his or her spouse with an awful noise.

"The noise is a mixture of noises that most people hate, like fingernails scratching on chalkboards, dentist drills, sirens," Bushman says.

As expected, the lower a person's blood sugar, the more likely he or she was to blast a spouse.

"Regardless of how good somebody's relationship is, when they're hungry, they're more angry, and they stuck more pins in the doll," Bushman says. "And they were more aggressive by giving their partner louder and longer blasts of noise."

Bushman thinks his finding could help people cut back on angry outbursts because they're hungry.

"What we conclude is that glucose is the food for the brain that we need to exercise self-control," Bushman says. "And when people's glucose levels are low, they are poorer at exercising self-control."

Blood sugar is clearly not the only factor involved in whether someone gets angry. But low blood sugar probably makes it harder for the brain to control emotions, says Emil Coccaro, a psychiatrist at the University of Chicago.

"The brain uses only sugar for its energy needs," he says. "So when there's less sugar available, the neurons aren't going to function as well."

Now, Bushman isn't recommending that people keep candy bars around to prevent angry outbursts. Such sweets can cause quick spikes in blood sugar that aren't helpful. But snacks with both carbohydrates and protein might be a good idea.

"The take-home message from this [study] would be to make sure you're not hungry when you talk about important issues with your spouse," Bushman says. "So something like a protein bar would be a really good thing to have before discussing an important issue with your spouse that you might become angry about."

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Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Okay. So one thing we should take from Allison's piece, chunky bread helps keep blood sugar low, but when blood sugar gets too low, there can be problems. For one thing, you can get a little, shall we say, unpleasant.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

That's one way to describe it. This next story is about an experiment that involved voodoo dolls, angry spouses and really unpleasant noise, all in service of defining one of our favorite words. Here's NPR's Rob Stein.

Here's NPR's Rob Stein.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: A lot of us know what can happen when we get hungry: we get grumpy, irritable, sometimes even pretty nasty. There's even a name for this: hangry.

BRAD BUSHMAN: Which is a combination of the words hungry and angry, which indicates that hungry people are often cranky and angry people.

STEIN: That's Brad Bushman, a psychologist at Ohio State University. Bushman wanted to know why. Why do some hungry people get angry? Lots of studies have suggested one reason: blood sugar. It plummets when people haven't eaten for a while. But most of those studies involved strangers in the laboratory.

BUSHMAN: And so we wanted to look at intimate partners instead.

STEIN: Including couples who basically really like each other and get along pretty well. Would low blood sugar levels even turn them into frenemies? So Bushman taught 107 couples how to measure their blood sugar. And sent them home with something unusual.

BUSHMAN: A voodoo doll and 51 pins.

STEIN: That's right, a voodoo doll.

BUSHMAN: We told the participants this doll represented their spouse. And that every night before they went to bed they should stab the doll with pins depending on how angry they were with their spouse. So the more pins they put in the doll, the more angry they were with their spouse.

STEIN: For the next 21 days, they did that. And in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week, Bushman reports what he found.

BUSHMAN: We found that people who had low levels of glucose stuck more pins in the voodoo doll than people who had high levels glucose. In fact, people in the lower 25 percent stuck more than twice as many pins in the voodoo doll compared to people in the upper 25 percent.

STEIN: But Bushman wanted to know something else, whether those angry feelings actually translated into nasty behavior. So he had them play a computer game that involved blasting their spouse with a really awful noise.

BUSHMAN: The noise is a mixture of noises of things that most people hate, like fingernails scratching on chalkboards, dentist drills, sirens. Here's, here's the noise.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SCREECHING SIREN SOUND)

STEIN: And it turned out that the lower their blood sugar on average, the more likely they were to really let their spouse have it with the noise.

BUSHMAN: Regardless of how good somebody's relationship is, when they're hungry they're more angry and they stuck more pins in the doll. And they were more aggressive by giving their partner louder and longer blasts of noise.

STEIN: Bushman thinks his findings could lead to new ways to help couples fight less.

BUSHMAN: What we conclude is that glucose is the food for the brain that we need to exercise self-control. And when peoples' glucose levels are low they are poorer at exercising self-control.

STEIN: Other researchers cautioned that low blood sugar isn't the only thing that can trigger anger - far from it. But Emil Coccaro at the University of Chicago says low blood sugar probably makes it harder for peoples' brain to regulate their emotions.

EMIL COCCARO: The brain only uses sugar for its energy needs. So when there's less sugar available, the neurons aren't going to function as well.

STEIN: Now, Bushman isn't recommending people keep candy bars around to prevent angry outbursts. They cause quick spikes in blood sugar that aren't very helpful. But there are other common sense things people can do.

BUSHMAN: The take-home message from this would be to make sure you're not hungry when you talk about important issues with your spouse.

STEIN: So, Bushman suggest couples grab a power bar or something else that will keep their blood sugar levels steady before discussing something that might make them angry.

Rob Stein, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: Eat your breakfast. Don't get hangry. It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.